Michael T. Sestak, a Foreign Service officer working at a US consulate in Vietnam, was just charged with exchanging hundreds of visas for bribes. That's a brazen case of corruption, but it's hardly unique among the annals of the diplomatic corps.
Michael T. Sestak before his arrest.
In June, Michael T. Sestak, a former cop and naval officer who went on to work for the US Foreign Service in Vietnam, was brought before a judge in Washington, DC on corruption charges. Sestak was allegedly a major part of one of the most lucrative illegal visa scams in history—while he was employed at the US consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, he had a side business rubber-stamping fraudulent visa applications for paying clients fed to him by a Vietnamese-American family, a gig that netted nearly $10 million all together according to the Department of Justice.
Sestak took his share, $3.2 million, to Thailand and bought condos in Bangkok and Phukett, while Sestak’s alleged co-conspirators—a Vietnamese-American businessman named Vo Tang Binh and his beauty-queen wife—have disappeared with $5 million in cash. According to Vietnamese immigration officials, the couple hasn’t left Vietnam since they last entered the country in early April 2012. A former US Ambassador who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity figured they wouldn't last long: “There are certain advantages to having a police state,” she said. That was three months ago, and the Vos are still at large. In the meantime, the Feds are holding Binh’s little sister at the Correctional Treatment Facility in Washington, DC. Her lawyers say she’s been kept isolated for 23 hours a day and permitted to bathe only three times a week.
Sestak, for his part, confessed during his interrogation in Bangkok, where the authorities caught up to him in May. “I worked in law enforcement long enough and what’s the adage?” Sestak told Simon Dinits of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) in a taped interview. “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. OK. I did something wrong and I deserve to pay for it, and I know I’m going to go to jail, I’m going to go to prison.”
No one (not even his defense attorneys) could tell me why he confessed. “That’s the $3.2 million question,” said one law clerk working on his case. “That’s what makes it such a crazy story.”
It's a crazy story, but save for Sestak's decision to fess up, it's not all that unusual. Sestak is far from the first consular bureaucrat to get caught selling visas for money, sex, or both. A Diplomatic Security spokesperson confirmed that 31 employees at US embassies and consulates (24 Americans and seven foreign nationals) have been convicted of bribery, conflicts of interest, and visa and passport fraud since 1999, the first year the State Department prosecuted anyone for visa fraud. Sestak isn't even the first member of the Foreign Service in Vietnam to be charged with corruption. The husband-and-wife team of Acey Johnson and Long Lee was convicted in 2003 of hatching a visa-selling scam at the embassy in Hanoi that continued in Sri Lanka and earned them $700,000.
In the past decade, crooked consular officers sold visas to a crew of Colombian cartel members and the roommate of two 9/11 hijackers. During that same period, visa applications from university professors and kidney donors have been denied. Last month, the State Department yanked a consular employee out of the Georgetown, Guyana, embassy amid allegations that he was selling visas for ass and cash, and a columnist for a state-run Cuban newspaper accused the Havana consular staff of accepting bribes.
The State Department denied the Cuba allegation. But they say they’re looking into the Guyana stories, and Gale Smith of the DSS told me that their agents are now embedded in consular affairs departments who work with the local cops to keep a close eye on everyone.
“Many US embassies now have a special program within the Regional Security Office to investigate both external and employee fraud,” she wrote in an email. “This special group of investigators works alongside host-country law enforcement.”
Most people at the State Department freaked when asked about how much sex and money they got during their stints on the visa desk. Many denied that there were any illicit gains to be gotten at all. But at least one old timer has gone on record as saying, “Some of the younger guys were trading visas for the favors of young ladies” during his posting in the Dominican Republic.
Some people I spoke to said the State Department would rather ignore some instances of low-level corruption and quietly reassign wrongdoers. “The ‘send him home’ response is very common for all sorts of problems,” emailed Peter Van Buren, author of We Meant Well, a tell-all about the reconstruction effort in Iraq. “State is loathe to air its dirty laundry and so just deep-sixing someone with pay removes the problem with no public fuss.”
Van Buren described bribery and visa fraud as impossible to quantify. “I suspect State has no idea how many visas get traded or sold, especially on a small scale,” he wrote. “It is painfully easy for someone to issue a visa, and the reasons behind the issuance (money, sex, whatever) usually only come out when something goes wrong. In most cases, I feel that both parties are satisfied (consular guy got the sex, visa person got the visa and quickly leaves the country never to be seen again). How could you even investigate something like that?”
Van Buren guessed that the only people who get caught are the ones who are greedy. But even then, they seem to be treated with kid gloves. An anonymous blogger writing under the pen name Diplopundit claimed that things have improved on this front.
“In the past, folks who were suspected of visa malfeasance were sent home, or allowed to retire, that is true,” the blogger wrote in an email. “But starting around the late 1990s to this date, the USG has routinely taken them to court with better results.”
Another issue is that every consular officer I spoke to said consulates and embassies had no systemic review process for visas. “In all my years on the job, no one ever came up to me and asked, ‘Hey, why did you issue this person a visa?'” said David Seminara, a former Foreign Service officer who now works as a journalist. “Consulates are bombarded with emails and phone calls from friends, relatives, and senators asking, ‘Hey why didn’t you give this person a visa?'... Most of the time consular managers are just chasing down denials.”
He points out that it's already pretty easy for most people to get visas (90 percent of Mexicans who applied for visas in 2012 got them), so it’s pretty hard to notice when someone is handing out too many. And if you illegally get a piece of paper letting you into the US, you're in for good—though billions of dollars have been poured into scanning tourists' eyeballs and fingerprints since 9/11, the alphabet soup of security agencies in charge of monitoring every dock and airport still has no way of keeping track of who comes or goes.
Like most people who bother to study this stuff, Seminara recommends that the entry-level drudgery of the visa desk should be treated as work for law enforcement to do—something that would be best handled by the drones at the Department of Homeland Security. That might make the visa process more like airport security, but it also might cut down on the next Michael Sestak's opportunities.
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